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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth Paperback – Sep 15 2008


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: House of Anansi Press Inc.; Fourth Impression edition (Sept. 15 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0887848109
  • ISBN-13: 978-0887848100
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 19.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 272 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #68,111 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)


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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Steven Teasdale on Nov. 13 2008
Format: Paperback
Given the current worldwide economic situation, it appears rather prescient that the 2008 Massey Lectures are on the subject of debt. In these lectures, Margaret Atwood provides an examination of the concept of debt as a motif in human society, particularly through an examination of the metaphors of debt in western literature. As such, this book only obliquely deals with monetary debts. Rather, the focus is on the more general idea of debt in relation to justice, sin, redemption, balance, and revenge, among other topics.

Atwood begins with the notion of debt and its relationship to fairness, which is ingrained in the psyche of the human race (and other intelligent creatures). In early societies, she describes how notions of debt are aligned with justice, typically represented by a supernatural female figure. It is the emergence of Greece, and the induction of the court system described in Aeschylus' Oresteia, that the idea of a female arbiter of fairness/justice (and thus of debt) is replaced.

Next, Atwood describes the links between debt and sin. In heaven, debts are forgiven; in hell, debts are eternally paid back. The character of Satan is described as a collector of debts, and is often shown with a ledger or balance sheets. With these notions of debt and sin, the creditor is often seen to be as sinful as the debtor, particularly in pre-industrial literature. Moreover, motifs of debt are always twinned with motifs of credit, one symbiotic with the other.

In the lecture on "Debt as plot", Atwood examines the characters of Faust (as exemplified by Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, in particular) and Scrooge (of Dickens's Christmas Carol).
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By R. L. J. Labossiere on Nov. 13 2008
Format: Paperback
If Margaret Atwood had written Payback in order to pay off a debt like Charles Dickens is said to have been motivated to write A Christmas Carol, perhaps it would have turned out be a better book.

Perhaps if she'd had another year to write it: originally her Massey lecture was scheduled for 2009 but was brought forward when a conflict emerged with the publication date of her next novel.

As it turned out, Payback: Debt and The Shadow Side Wealth, is somewhat like a character in a novel itself; caught up in circumstance, a hero determined to change the course of events yet doomed to fail by a tragic flaw.

A tragic flaw may or may not be known to the protagonist and in this case, Atwood is acutely aware of it. Still, she plods on as she tragically must, determined to fashion an answer to what was, a year or two ago when she started crafting her arguments, no more than a glimmer of pending economic crisis.

Atwood chooses Dickens' Scrooge for the model of her redemption story, contriving Scrooge Nouveau, a worldly, corporate, media savvy version of Dickens' original, and a capitalist with a keener eye for self-interest than the old miser ever had.

But like Dickens' Scrooge, Atwood's Nouveau version finds redemption to be a relatively free ride; it comes at no real cost to himself; he is more than able to share his enormous wealth. Like Dickens, Atwood advocates personal, internal, even spiritual change. Adopting an attitude of service to others, or the earth as Atwood suggests, serves everyone better, including oneself. It's a slight of hand accomplished by looking at everything one has, even one's body, as borrowed.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Leonard W. Hindle on May 8 2009
Format: Paperback
Ms. Atwood has been an icon of Canadian literature since Methuselah (aka 'I') was a boy. Her books have been required reading in our schools for almost 5 decades and she is rightly seen as one of our National treasures in literature...... but.....when it comes to economics, environmentalism and surprisingly even modern morality she is a dilettante at the seniors home.

This was a disappointing read. i had heard part of her interview on CBC about this book and i had hoped for so much more. The potential for insight was so much more than was realized on the page.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Bernie Koenig TOP 100 REVIEWER on Dec 25 2008
Format: Paperback
Natural Law, Science, and the Social Construction of Reality

Margaret Atwood has produced a very entertaining look at the role of debt in a cultural and historical context.

We learn too much about debt from a purely economic standpoint these days, and economic theory, as we have been seeing, is largely nonsense, so it is nice to see a discussion of the subject from a cultural standpoint.

Atwood shows that the concept of 'debt' is primarily a social or moral concept and has taken on different forms through our history.

In the first chapter she shows that part of Western culture has been about Fairness, and that even primate studies show that our biological relatives have a very real sense of fairness.

But for different cultures or for people in different time periods, fairness could mean different things. Much depended on who owed what to whom. We have money debts and moral debts, and, they both could be seen in a similar light.

Which leads to chapter two which deals with the moral side of debt. Here we meet the Devil, and Dr. Faustus. We sell our souls to the Devil for immediate gratification, only to have to pay the debt later. Atwood likens this to pawning something. The point here is that usually what we have to pay back is more than what we got in the first place. Our souls are worth more than the gratification we got at the time, and what we pay to redeem our article from the pawnbroker is more than what we got for it.

In the third chapter we get an interesting discussion of debt as seen in literature, from Marlowe to Dickens. here we see the negative aspect of the creditor's role in debt.
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